Sunday, November 14, 2004

'Tomorrow Now': A History of the 20th Century

I've read some of Bruce Sterling's better short fiction, and heard a recording of him speaking on the subject of the Singularity. (He seemed to understand what it was all about, even if I found his cavalier attitude towards it rather disconcerting.) These were the colorfol, if narrow, visions of one who had obviously done his homework, and I was curious to see what kinds of images of our future he might project on the wider screen of a non-fiction book. So I recently checked out Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years from my local library.

It's a bold title, and his first chapter, on biotechnology, lives up to it. Sterling provides a detailed montage of a new lifestyle: a generation that embraces and guides the diverse micro-ecologies around us and within us, instead of indiscriminately assaulting every microbe with broad-spectrum antibiotics, toothpastes, deoderants, etc.

Had he maintained this assertiveness in his other six chapters, on education, love, politics, war, business, and aging, Tommorow Now would probably be the premier futurist survey on the market. Instead, by chapter two he has seemingly cast off the shackles of editorial oversight, coasting along on timid, wandering note-dumping and ruminations on the character of modern life.

He discusses love in terms of relationships he's had with technology itself over the years. A history of the German Reichstag building becomes an extended metaphor for the evolution of political systems in the last half century. He personifies modern war through biographical study of a few celebrity rebels ("martyrs", "terrorists", "freedom fighters", depending on who's side you're on)--the kind of warriors that give today's traditional armies so much trouble.

I don't want to imply that there's anything wrong with his analysis of 20th century history; it's as insightful as anything I've read, and makes good reading in its own right. Unlike many futurists, Sterling obviously understands the importance of taking more than just technology into account when building projections. It's less glitsy, more complicated, and horribly difficult, but ultimately produces the most reasonable results. All futurists are wrong, but some are more obviously wrong sooner.

But while playing it safe is understandable, Sterling fails to deliver on a stated promise. Tomorrow Now does not envision the next fifty years for more than fifty of its 320 pages. By failing to assemble his insights into a working futurism projector, Sterling misses out on the big payoff he might be capable of. He pours a bag of intriguing gears, springs and optics into the reader's lap, pausing only to give Andy Rooney-ish commentary before disappearing into the night.


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